Can Computers Redefine Literacy?

Proliferating Literacies

      Education was described above as the process by which we each augment the phylogenetic information of our species, which we acquire as a conceptual-day gift, with the ontogenetic information we acquire in our individual lifetimes. Basing traditional education on the 3Rs embodies the insight that the acquisition of communication tools is central to education. It is tempting to extend this language of "literacy" to the third and fourth generations of media, by talking of video literacy and computer literacy, respectively. However, this continues to privilege print, to perpetuate a limited concept of literacy as the foundation of education - the 3Rs, and to preserve an antiquated educational system based on the first two generations of media - talk-and-chalk. The concept has been associated with print (the second generation of communication tools) for the many centuries of print-dominated media and thus can not easily be extended to cover the third and fourth generations which have emerged relatively recently.

      Each of the metaphors described above implies a different literacy. Using the computer to access and explore databases through a modem, to create a microworld, or to create a stack of interlinked cards each require different skills. None of them could be considered as literacy in the strict sense of acquiring a language. It is becoming less and less necessary to learn a computer language to use computers. People are increasingly "driving" computers, leaving tinkering under the hood to programmers who have learned the languages which computers understand. Just as we do not speak of car literacy when a person learns to drive, so we should not speak of computer literacy when a person learns to use a computer. As we move from an industrial society, with its infrastructure of transportation, to a post-industrial society with its infrastructure of informatics (network of computers linked by telecommunications), it is useful to learn not only to drive a car but to "drive" a computer through cyberspace.

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